We revere the skills of prominent CEOs, perhaps more than we should.
We romanticize Steve Jobs types, who scream at their underlings until they squeeze sheer perfection out of them.
We lionize Jack Welch, who earned the nickname “Neutron Jack” for his ability to get rid of employees while leaving only the corporate offices standing.
But there’s an underappreciated form of leadership that requires far more skill than being a CEO does. It’s the job of a university president.
I’ve worked for years alongside some tremendous university presidents, like C. L. Max Nikias and Steven Sample at USC; and having seen how they can “move the needle” at such vast and complex enterprises, I’m quite convinced that leaders in other sectors have much they can learn from good higher education governance.
Consider that Robert Sternberg announced his resignation as president of the University of Wyoming yesterday, after four short months in office. After quickly shaking up the campus, he was quickly shaken out of the campus.
Entrepreneurs and CEOs talk about being “disruptive innovators.” Sternberg proudly put on the mantle of disruptive innovator at Wyoming, and lost his job as a result. Frankly, he sounds like he would’ve done well at many companies. But being a university president requires vision and enviable amounts of tact, shrewdness and patience.
Herman Wells, the former president of Indiana University, once observed that the ideal university president would combine “the physical charm of a Greek athlete, the cunning of Machiavelli, the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of a lion, the skin of a rhino … and the stomach of a goat.”
Corporate CEOs lead through control
Being an effective corporate CEO isn’t that hard, really: Your biggest concern is ticking off your board; otherwise, you get to order underlings around and fire the ones you don’t like. What you say goes.
University presidents lead through cooperation
Being an effective university president involves much more diplomacy and persuasion and vision-selling. Yes, you are beholden to a board. But you have to lead through collaboration and cajoling, not control.
The most powerful group within a university is its tenured faculty. If they refuse to listen to you, you can’t fire them. That’s the whole idea behind academic freedom. But it makes moving in a new direction fraught with peril.
As one college president told me, “You don’t say, ‘Professor Smith, I need you to make this change.’ Instead, you say, “Professor Smith, I have a great idea I’d like to run past you. I really need your input in order to make this work, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to improve my idea and how to implement it?”
Can you imagine Steve Jobs saying that? Brilliant as he was, he’d last eight nano-seconds as the president of Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Caltech or the other 50 to 100 research giants that fuel America’s economic and cultural preeminence.
Eisenhower was one of America’s greatest leaders. But he had a very unremarkable run as president of Columbia University. It’s because he didn’t know how to navigate the hyper-intricate human maze that is a major university.
The university president’s job is fantastically complex. Traditional companies open and shutter, and a founding CEO who fails can shrug it off and go on to start something new. But universities are expected to maintain high quality for centuries (consider how Oxford has kept churning for 8 centuries), while they’re also supposed to adapt to new developments (like online technology, globalization and so on). Give credit where credit is due: Apple’s a nice little enterprise, but Stanford will be thriving in 200 years, while Apple will be a historical footnote.
Not only does the university president need to cajole a bunch of people he can’t fire, he needs to convince others on the outside to contribute billions of dollars to fund his or her vision. That takes some special skill.
Warren Bennis, the great leadership guru (and a longtime mentor to me) who served for several years as university provost and a university president, wrote this a few years ago:
No manner of leader, save possibly a mayor of a large city, deals with as vast and complicated a cartography of stakeholders as does the head of a major American research university. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that a university president is called on to be an entertainer, a visionary, a priest, a psychologist, and a CEO of 10 or 20 vastly different enterprises gathered under the seal of one university.
Warrenwas being modest. A university president often oversees 10 to 20 independent academic units, along with a dozen or more major research centers—in addition to 10 to 20 athletic franchises, massive hotel and restaurant chains catering to their students, and a myriad of enterprises in the background.
Indeed, it’s quite probably the most demanding leadership job possible. Robert Sternberg found that out the hard way.